Responding to Syrian Refugees: A Turning Point for Civil Society in Turkey?

By Michelle Dromgold-Sermen
Submitted to Session P4980 (Humanitarianism and the Syrian Crisis, 2017 Annual Meeting
Diaspora/Refugee Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Since 2012, civil society in Turkey has mobilized and been integral in providing humanitarian relief and human rights support to the approximately 2.8 million registered Syrians across the country. The number of civil society organizations is at a historic high, according to data collected by the Third Sector Foundation (TÜSEV). However, interviews with 32 representatives from humanitarian and human rights organizations, government offices and supranational organizations suggest that civil society in Turkey may be splitting in two. Secular and minority-based organizations focusing on human rights advocacy function as bottom-up grassroots initiatives, while religious humanitarian organizations cooperate increasingly with government agencies.

The majority of representatives from human rights organizations reported no or infrequent coordination with the Turkish government whereas humanitarian representatives reported occasional or frequent coordination. Humanitarian organizations coordinated closely with the Emergency and Disaster Management Office (AFAD), including through information sharing. Although human rights organizations reported sharing information with the General Directorate for Migration Management, they also expressed a change in coordination after cooperatively drafting the 2013 Law on Foreigners and International Protection: “But since the law passed…they [the General Directorate] feel insulted when you criticize something about the implementation…we cannot get access…it seems like they don’t want to cooperate as they used to before. They changed the attitude approach towards NGOs...They just feel offended and don’t try to fix it. That’s the problem.” While human rights organizations struggle to maintain access to government coordination, sixty local and Turkey-based religious humanitarian organizations have formed a predominant platform in Turkey’s southeast. The Sanliurfa Humanitarian Aid Civil Society Organization Platform sought to respond to “a need… We came to fill a gap: the governorate, the municipality, the mufti, the official offices and associations said, 'There is an emergency situation here, there is a war. Let’s move.’” Now, the platform is cited as a success story among other organizations. As another interviewee shared: “Urfa is one of the bravest cities I’ve seen.”

Multiple interviewees expressed such coordinated governance as an ideal model for responding to Syrian refugees’ needs: “The best coordination would be together between civil society organizations, our civil authorities (mülki amir) and the governorate.” However, while such coordination is occurring with religious organizations in pockets across the country, coordination with secular organizations is less frequent. This trend suggests a bifurcation while also blurring the distinction between government and civil society, which may have implications for Turkey’s broader civil society.